July reading and August plans! #AllViragoAllAugust #WITMonth #TDiRS22


Without wanting to turn into a moany old bat, I have to say that July was not without its issues… The heat, for one thing, was phenomenal in my part of the UK, and I don’t deal with it well. There was ongoing stuff to do with the Aged Parent, work was screamingly busy and I was so tired all the time that I often strugged to read. What I did read was marvellous, though, and here it is – things picked up a little towards the end of the month, though I can only show here one of the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press (the other was a digital copy), both of which were wonderfully unsettling! No duds as such, although I *was* slightly underwhelmed by one title!

I’m now on the summer break from work (hurrah!) and have found that my reading speed has picked up a little. Looking forward to this month’s plans, again I’ll be keeping things simple.

August has traditionally been a month which is designated by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group as ‘All Virago/All August‘, where we try to focus on reading as many Virago and related books as possible (so Persephone, Furrowed Middlebrow etc). There is also our monthly Virago prompt, which for August is a book about a journey, whether factual or fictional. I have had a dig and have the following options, though it will very much depend on my mood!

Two of those are possibles also for the following event… 😊

August is also, of course, Women in Translation month. Now, I do read a fair amount of translated women already, but I shall definitely look to be reading some of those unread volumes on the stacks – here’s my initial heap of potentials!

There are some lovely titles there, though the risk is as always that I try to take on too much!!

Another August event is a Twitter readalong of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, which is very tempting… I have these two physical copies in the TBR:

and I think there’s a digital copy of the controversial Nabokov translation lurking somewhere too. Knowing me I will run out of time, especially as there’s also an Alkmatova readalong, and I just can’t decide. We shall see…

2022 has, of course, been a bit of a year of re-reading for me, and I think that tendency may be continuing! Annabel announced a few days ago that she’s hosting a monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, running from August to December;  and I’m most keen to join in!

I’ve meant to revisit these books so many times in recent years as there are often readalongs around Christmas time, usually spurred on by the enthusiasm of Robert Macfarlane! I always run out of time, but one book a month worked for me with the Narnia books and I’m sure it will with these! Here are my fragile old editions, dusted off and ready to go!

Apart from these, there’s one book I’m pretty sure I shall be picking up. I hope to be off on my travels for the first time since the pandemic began, visiting my Aged Parent and the Offspring, and I plan to take this one with me:

“Only one book???” I hear you cry? Well, it’s a chunky one (as are most of Victor Serge‘s books) and I suspect it will keep me company for most of my travels. And if I finish it – well, there are bookshops in Leicester, and I *will* have some e-books on the tablet if things get desperate!!

So simple plans for August, and I suspect there may be some incoming titles too! What reading plans do *you* have for the month??

An evocative and atmospheric look at summers past – over @ShinyNewBooks #WITMonth


After a couple of posts which moved away from #WITMonth, I want to share today a review I’ve done for Shiny New Books of a wonderful book which has been garnering a lot of love lately – “Three Summers” by Margarita Liberaki.

Set in Greece between the wars, the story follows three sisters over the summers of the title as they grow and change, make decisions which will decide the paths of their lives, love and lose, and explore family secrets. It’s a wonderful read, beloved in its native land, and the recent attention it’s been getting is much deserved. You can read my thoughts here! 😀

“Our wretched lives.” #WITMonth #Petrushevskaya


Having got into a groove with some stories translated from the Russian for #WITMonth, I was a bit tempted to continue in that vein. I’ve had a major reshuffle of the Russian shelves, incorporating all the piles of books lying around the house so they were all in one place (and making careful note of unread titles whilst doing so!) And in the middle of this, I decided that instead of popping “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated by Anna Summers) onto the shelf with her fictions, now would be a good time to start reading her!

Petrushevskaya is probably best known for her collections of short stories, with provocative titles like “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”; and her reputation has continued to grow in recent years. “Metropol…” however is a memoir; and the subtitle ‘Growing up in Communist Russia’ gives a hint of what can be expected. Although short, this is no light read…

Petrushevksaya was born in Moscow in 1938, in the titular Metropol Hotel, and lived there until 1941. At that point her father, a Bolshevik intellectual, was named as an enemy of the state. Petrushevskaya and her mother fled to Kuibyshev and from then on her childhood was one of suffering and constant change. As un-persons, Ludmilla and her mother lived on the poverty line, and the young girl was shuffled between relatives and homes, scrabbling to survive. Becoming feral, she often survived by scavenging and begging, and later attempts to teach her or ‘civilise’ her met mostly with failure – Petrushevskaya was a real wild child.

That feeling of coziness, of home, when a match strikes and a tiny circle of light appears, always returned when I had to settle in a new place. Never have I been frightened by circumstances. A little warmth, a little bread, my little ones with me, and life begins, happiness begins.

The book follows her life and travels until she finally grows up enough to become educated and get a break on Soviet radio. However, there are times during the story where it’s touch and go if she’ll make it. Yet, despite this grim subject matter, Petrushevksaya tells her story with a light touch, and it’s never less than readable. Told mainly in calm tones and often through a child’s eye, Ludmilla somehow travels through life avoiding the really bad stuff and makes it to adulthood – a true survivor.

As I said, this is grim stuff in places; and at times, when there are particularly threatening events (she finds herself potential prey of boys and men), Petrushevskaya switches to the third person, as if she can only relate her story by considering it as having happened to someone else. However, despite this, the book is incredibly compelling, and Petrushevkaya never indulges in self-pity; whether sleeping under a table in a communal apartment or in the Officers’ Club (where she finds shelter by breaking in), queuing in the bread line and getting served last, or pretending to be an orphan, she’s matter-of-fact and intent on survival. It’s this element, I think, that makes the book and its content less crushing than it could have been in someone else’s hands.

Back in Kuibyshev, her mother and sister accepted her disappearance without much joy. Her name was never mentioned again. On the other hand, so many people had vanished from their lives. At that time it was common – people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharms’s famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again. Later the poet himself vanished. (On her mother’s disappearance)

One aspect of the book which was perhaps a little shocking was the willingness of Ludmilla’s mother to leave her with relatives or in homes and just go off; I guess needs must, and I’ve no idea how hard it was to live through the War and then post-War in Soviet Russia. However, it’s clear how much Petrushevskaya misses her mother and I did find this very moving. The daughter did, of course, survive and went on to have a fascinating life and a career, moving into the limelight after Perestroika and the fall of Communist Russia; and she’s now a multi-faceted artist, producing visual art and embarking upon a singing career as well as her writing.

There is nothing more beautiful than the steppe. Nothing. Even the ocean is smaller and ends sooner. For the rest of my days I will remember the sunrise over the steppe: a recently ploughed purple earth and an orange sun trembling over the horizon like an enormous egg yolk.

“Metropol…” is a gripping and enthralling read from start to finish, and the book is enhanced by the images included; some are personal photos from the author, and some photos to illustrate places and times. These add much to the narrative, and as an aside, I was really impressed with the quality of reproduction. I’ve read a number of paperbacks in recent months which have photos inserted into the main body of the narrative, and these are often muddy and of poor quality. I don’t know if it’s because my copy of the book is a US Penguin edition and the paper quality is better, but the images are really clear and well reproduced, which definitely enhanced the reading experience.

So my first experience of reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was a really powerful and memorable one. Her prose is excellent, her experiences unforgettable and her vivid portrait of life in Soviet Russia quite unparalleled. I loved making the acquaintance of Petrushevskaya for #WITMonth and really must get to her fictions soon! 😀


“She grieved for all her lost possibilities…” #WITMonth #ChristaWolf @seagullbooks


My second read for #WITMonth is by an author I’ve read before, and one who’s been extensively published in Virago Modern Classics: Christa Wolf. I read her marvellous “The Quest for Christa T.” back in 2014, and I have a number of chunky (and not so chunky) Virago volumes by her on the shelves:

However, the book which called me recently was one I picked up not that long ago, and which was in one of my piles of possible reads for the month: “Eulogy for the Living”. Published by Seagull Books and translated by Katy Derbyshire, the book is an uncompleted fragment which looks back to her early years and it’s absolutely fascinating.

Wolf did, of course, have a very intriguing history; an East German writer, from the Cold War times when her country was split in two, she’s been a controversial figure over the years. Born in a city which would end up as Polish territory after the war, she and her family fled to East Germany where she lived out the Cold War until reunification. Much of her work seems to be to be involved with memory; “Quest…” certainly draws on the life and memories of two East German women who survived the war and made their way through a totalitarian regime; and “Patterns of Childhood” (published by Virago as “A Model Childhood”) apparently draws on its narrator’s past and memories. “Eulogy…” is described as a good companion piece, and as Wolf’s husband reveals in a short afterword, this is a book she had tried to write many times, to capture her early life and flight from her childhood home. The piece in this book is the longest version she managed to write before her death.

I wanted to know nothing of the wilderness that grew inside all people every night, for that was how I imagined it – a jungle inside every person, shooting up insanely every night, every morning newly broken, worn down, trampled. Friendliness and smiles by day, primeval jungle by night – it was all in the fairy tales.

“Euology…” is 126 pages long, and Wolf’s prose here is as layered and sometimes fragmentary as I found it in “Quest..”. As she tells her story, the narrator dips back to the time the family moved to the small town, built their shop and settled with their grandparents living on the top floor. She explores her school days and friendships, her relationship with her mother, father and brother, and her own moods and personality. These sections are juxtaposed with the urgent need to flee as the Russian Army is getting very close, and the contrast between the past, when all seemed right in the world and the Fuhrer was in charge, and the present where all the certainties are dissolving, is striking.

Running through the book as a strong thread is the narrator’s relationship with her mother; as with all mother/daughter relationships, this is a complex one, and the two clash frequently, sharing the same stubborn characteristics. The narrator craves her mother’s love, yet rebels against her, is sometimes afraid of her, and recognises her mother’s frustration with the life she has – which is certainly not the one she would have chosen. There is a dramatic moment between them when the family start their journey to safety, and although the book is unfinished, it’s clear from things said earlier in the book that there was a resolution.

The day was grey. I saw next to nothing through my gap between the tarpaulins and the trailer behind us. I heard motion on the streets, carts, cars, shouts, but I saw none of it. I saw a tiny section of the road driving past, the houses at about the level of the first floors, sometimes the tips of a fence if it was tall enough, tree trunks close below the leaves, bushes. But it seems as though I had seen everything precisely, and I still see it now.

Wolf’s writing is never linear or straightforward, but it’s totally engrossing and hypnotic; and in “Eulogy…” it completely draws you in, allowing you to see events entirely through the very singular narrator’s gaze. It also allows you the point of view of a German citizen, living under the Nazi regime, and having an ordinary life whilst ruled by someone we regard now as an evil dictator. Just goes to show that perspective is all, and that it’s not always easy to recognise the kind of country in which you’re living…

So “Eulogy…” turned out to be a wonderful choice for #WITMonth, and I’m glad I got the nudge to pick this up right now. As I’ve said, Wolf can be a more difficult read than some, but her writing is always very rewarding; and having enjoyed this so much, hopefully I’ll feel impelled to pick up another of her books sooner rather than later… 😀

As well as counting this one for #WITMonth, I shall also count it for All Virago/All August as Wolf is a Virago author!

“A window lit up. Someone shouted.” #WITMonth #MargueriteDuras


August is, of course, Women in Translation month, and as I shared in my end of July post, I have huge stacks of potential books to choose from. Typically enough, however, my first read for #WITMonth is a book which wasn’t in the stacks but which has been lurking in the TBR for quite a while now – “Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night” by Marguerite Duras (translated by Anne Borchardt).

Looking back through the blog, I can see that I picked this up in 2016 from Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road on a lovely day trip to London (I remember those well…); I had previously read one Duras book (“The Lover”) which didn’t really gel at the time but I was prepared to give the author another try. And certainly, “Ten-Thirty…” is novella length at 108 pages and so easy enough to read in one sitting.

Duras was of course a prolific woman, known as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and experimental filmmaker. Interestingly, “The Lover” was a later novel (1984) and “Ten-Thirty…” was originally published in French in 1960, so I was certainly expecting the stylistic differences I found; although there were similarities in my reactions to her writing as we shall see!

“Ten-Thirty..” tells the story of a small group on holiday in Spain: the main character is Maria, who is accompanied by her husband Pierre, her young daughter Judith and her beautiful friend Claire. Having stopped in a small town, the book opens with Maria in a cafe drinking, while her daughter plays in the torrential rain outside. The extreme stormy weather (which is almost a character in its own right and has much to do with the direction of the narrative) has caused havoc, the hotels are full and the locals are buzzing with the fact that a man from the town, Rodrigo Paestra, has killed his wife and her lover and gone on the run. Maria is drinking – something she does fairly heavily throughout the book – and she’s become aware that Pierre and Claire are being consumed by their desire for each other.

As night falls, the storm continues and the four travellers settle in corridors of the hotel to see out the night’s events. Maria, detached and still drinking, witnesses Pierre and Claire kissing on a balcony; she also spots what all the police have managed to miss, which is the murderer huddled on a rooftop hiding from justice. The passive Maria will take action that night, with dramatic consequences for some of the party; and the effects of her actions are certainly not ones she could have foreseen…

There’s quite a lot compressed into such a short book, and much of that can be put down to Duras’ laconic, fragmented style. I mentioned this in my review of “The Lover” but I did feel this read very differently. Duras often writes in clipped, short sentences, designed to get her meaning across in an unadorned way. However, she still manages to capture quite brilliantly the atmosphere of the town, the almost claustrophobic effect of the storm and the police presence, and Maria’s state of mind. Her prose often focuses on observing small details which she uses to convey emotions; this can be surprisingly effective. The overall feel of reading this was, for me, rather like watching a French New Wave film, with the long silences and meaningful looks, just translated into prose.

And as with “The Lover”, and with that kind of film, there is I feel a distancing effect. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in “Ten-Thirty…” which doesn’t matter a bit; but I did feel disconnected from them and their narrative, and although I enjoyed the experience of reading the book, in the end I didn’t actually care much about them or it. The setting and atmosphere were in effect more memorable for me than the characters; and without giving anything away, the denouement and the likely future for any of them really didn’t matter.

So I have mixed responses to Duras once more; I admire her skill and her writing, and I think she succeeds in capturing her characters and her setting quite brilliantly, particularly in the kind of brief prose she writes. This is a book which certainly is impressive in what it conveys and how it does so. However, in the end, both of the books of hers which I’ve read have left me a bit cold and distanced from them, and having given her a second chance I don’t know yet if I would feel the need to read her again. An interesting read for #WITmonth, nevertheless, and one less book on Mount TBR! 😀

August – A further attempt at planning my reading… #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust


Ahem. Well, as I hinted earlier in the week, July has not seen me sticking that closely to the plans I made at the start of the month. I have managed one book for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month and sort of one for Paris in July. In fact, here’s the month’s reading and although I’m very happy with the books I *did* read, I hadn’t really intended to encounter most of them.

I didn’t read *all* of the Paris poems, but did enjoy a substantial chunk of the book! 😀

What I did plan, though, and stuck to was my days of reading Rose Macaulay. I enjoyed her books very much, and hope it won’t be too long till I get to another of her works. As it is, however, I’m still playing catch-up on the reviews as you can see from the books in the pile which I haven’t written about yet. No duds in July, I’m happy to say!

As for August, this is always a busy reading month and one I try to enjoy as I’m not at work! There’s the Women in Translation reading event, created by Meytal Radzinski (you can find her here) and still growing in popularity – what a wonderful initiative it is. I love to take part in this one, and a cursory search of my unread books revealed a bountiful amount of books to choose from…

There are, this being me, a *lot* of Russian options in there and I’m tempted by any number of the titles. But “Frida’s Bed” is calling, as is “Artemesia” as is the book about Proust. And typically, after snapping this image, I went rummaging for my copy of Gerard de Nerval’s ‘Chimeras’ (more of which in a later post!) and I came across another pile of books which would be perfect for #WITMonth:

*Sigh* – so many choices! An Embarrassment of Riches!!!

The other August reading event I love to take part in is All Virago/All August, run by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. The event is very loose in that Persephones, Dean Street Press etc are allowed as being of similar type to the VMCs. I never stick to All Virago for the month, but I do have three possibles I’m eyeing up:

“Laughing Torso” is a book I’ve owned for decades; “Persuasion” would be a lovely re-read, and also fit in with Austen in August; and “Drawn from Life” was one I intended to read last year but ran out of time. Who knows what I’ll choose this year??

Apart from that, I’m keeping the plans loose. Stue is extending Spanish and Porgtuguese Lit month into August, which is nice if my mood takes me there. However, following my reading of Richard Holmes’ “Footsteps” I’m being drawn down all kinds of different paths, feeling as if I want to binge on RLS, Wollestonecraft, Shelley & Co, and Gerard de Nerval all at the same time – which is, of course, not possible. Then there are the Picador recent arrivals and the review books. A surfeit of reading matter is a bit of a first world problem I suppose – watch this space to see what I do read! Do you have any plans for August or do you just intend to do your own thing? ;D

“…he became scribe and secretary to his mind…” #fleurjaeggy #thesepossiblelives


These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor

Reading books is a dangerous thing. Not only does it keep your mind exercised and in a constant state of stimulation, it also tends to make you perpetuate that state by suggesting ideas for more books you might want to read… Well, certainly that’s the case for me when I read something like Brian Dillon’s excellent “Suppose a Sentence”. As I said in my review, it’s one of those perilous books which has a list at the end and sends you off in all sorts of interesting directions to explore other works and authors. One particular book which caught my eye was “These Possible Lives” by Fleur Jaeggy (a Swiss author who writes in Italian – so perfect for #WITMonth) Although I have a fiction book by her unread, this very slim collection of essays sounded impossible to resist – so I didn’t…

Every morning Mrs. De Quincey inspected the children, perfuming them with lavender or rose water, and then icily dismissed them from her presence until lunch. Dreams of “terrific grandeur” settled on the nursery.

“These Possible Lives” is just 60 pages long, and contains three short essays which look at the lives of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob. In short and strange sentences, Jaeggy manages to conjure a whole life, but in prose which is entirely individual and quite remarkable. Her writing is compressed and concise, her juxtapositions unexpected, and yet the book is incredibly lyrical.

Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street, coasting to a stop on the corner of Oxford Street in front of his little friend Ann.

De Quincey will, of course, be familiar as the author of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”; the poet Keats needs no introduction; however, Schwob, a French symbolist writer who influenced Borges and Bolano, is probably less familiar. Jaeggy’s pieces have no typical biographical structure, give no hard and fast details of dates and events and work; instead, they present impressionistic glimpses of the three men at points in their lives. Time jumps forwards with no warning and death approaches; in many ways, as Dillon has commented, this is as much about their deaths as their lives. There *are* facts, but not necessarily presented in a joined-up fashion. You could, I suppose, refer to them as precis of a life, but that’s doing them an injustice. Somehow, despite the brevity of essays, Jaeggy manages to convey the sense of a long and full life, well lived, even in cases such as Keats who died so young.

On the evidence of this work, Fleur Jaeggy is obviously a remarkable writer. I’ve seen her writing described as austere, but I think that’s not quite the word I would use here. Despite her concision, there’s an odd richness in her prose; and the rapid shifts and unusual connections she makes create a surprising depth in her narrative. And her sentences; they really are something else, as Brian Dillon made clear in his chapter on her writing in “Suppose a Sentence”! “These Possible Lives” is an extraordinary, brilliant and memorable book, with writing that quite took my breath away; and I really shall have to get to Jaeggy’s fiction work soon…

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.” #WITMonth #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds


A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Annie Ernaux is an award-winning French author whose works have been making their way into the Anglophone world over recent years, most notably in the UK via the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions. Originally pitching her literary talents towards fiction, she switched to autobiographical works and these are the ones which most British readers would recognise – books like “I Remain in Darkness” and “The Years” have garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. Her most recent release via Fitzcarraldo is “A Girl’s Story” and, as an Ernaux virgin, I was very happy to be offered a copy by the publisher to cover for #WITmonth.

From what I’ve read about Ernaux’s books, they don’t mince their words; and “A Girl’s Story” is no exception. It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognise how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

The effects of the summer of 1958 are devastating, and Annie D. (Duschesne, as she was then) loses contact with H. at the end of the summer, and is rejected by the camp when she applies to be an instructor the following year. Instead, she spends time as an au pair in London, where her behaviour is still off-kiltre. She’s a self-obsessed young person, as so many are, with little knowledge of what’s happening in real life and a kind of blindness when it comes to major world events; she’s locked inside her head, fixated on her own emotions.

The cover of the US edition from Seven Stories Press

In itself, “A Girl’s Story” is an important book; in many ways, it could every woman’s story, as most of us have at some point faced abuse from men, whether verbal, physical, emotional or simply derision. As Ernaux comments at one point in the story (when both male and female instructors are mocking a letter of Annie’s which has been found and displayed on a noticeboard):

When I go back over the corridor scene, little by little, the girl in the middle becomes depersonalized, is no longer me or even Annie D. What happened in the corridor at the camp takes us back to time immemorial, all over the planet. Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.

And how many naive young women have become obsessed by an older man who seems to be some kind of ideal, yet has little interest in them and casts them off when they’ve got what they want? But there’s something deeper at work in Ernaux’s writing as she tackles her past. Her narrative form is unusual; she distances herself from her past self, telling Annie D.’s story in the third person as if they were two separate people (which I suppose, in some ways, they are). It seems as if she’s conflicted, unable or unwilling to get into the mindset of the girl of summer 1958, yet trying to do just that. As she wrestles with herself, it’s as if she’s spent the intervening years trying to completely bury her memories and that part of her past and move on. However, the experience has marked her and stayed with her and she’s still unable to let go of it.

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all. What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?

Knowledge is control, I suppose; and by writing about her past and exploring the way memory works, Ernaux is trying to take back control over herself and the way she was perceived, control which she certainly didn’t have at the time. In retrospect, a young girl from a repressed household with a controlling mother, no wordly knowledge and no experience of men was a lamb to the slaughter and never should have been sent to the summer camp. But she was, and she had these vile experiences which had tainted her life, and this is, I suppose, Ernaux’s reckoning with them.

How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, the ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

The things which happen to us when we’re young and impressionable *do* stay with us; and traumatic events like those which were inflicted on Annie D. couldn’t help but have a lasting effect. Fascinatingly, Ernaux traces the start of her writing life back to these events, as if they made her the woman she is – which seems to be a powerful, honest and confessional writer. She also captures the attitudes of the times quite brilliantly; the double standards applied to women, the expectations of their behaviour, and the casual misogyny which existed. “A Girl’s Story” is a vivid, often harrowing and yet inspiring book, as Annie D. suvived the events of the summer of 1958 and moved on to become the author which Annie Ernaux is. “A Girl’s Story” is a multi-layered read, looking not only at the events of the summer of 1958 and how they affected her; it also looks at issues around memory, trauma, blinkered perceptions and how we can totally submit our willpower to another human. It’s a compelling and unforgettable book, a chronicle of its era in many ways, and Ernaux is obviously an author I will need to explore further…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Clare Bogen, for which many thanks!

“Life is but smoke and shadows” #WITMonth #TatyanaTolstaya @DauntBooksPub


Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya
Translated by Anya Migdal

You’ll recall me having a grumble back at the end of June about how hopeless I am with reading challenges (although I’m happier with the concept of projects, and *have* got back on board with some during July). However, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, one event I always love to join in with is Women in Translation month; and my first book of translated female writing is a wonderful collection of short works by the amazing Tatyana Tolstaya.

Tolstaya, as her name suggests, has a fairly impressive literary lineage, including both Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. Born in Leningrad, she’s spent portions of her life living in America; and both of the countries appear as backdrops in this selection of short works. I say ‘works’ deliberately, because I think it’s a little simplistic to call what Tolstaya writes short stories. The works featured range in length from a few pages to novella length; some read as essays, some as autofiction and some as pure invention. What’s consistent, though, is the quality; as all are really excellent.

So where to start discussing this collection? Perhaps by mentioning a few favourites. The opening piece “20/20” reveals how the narrator discovered her inner vision and became an author after an eye operation to cure myopia; “Smoke and Shadows” is set in an American university and appears to start out as autofiction but then morphs into something more fantastic; and “A Young Lady in Bloom” is the story of a University student in Soviet Russia making ends meet by working as a telegram delivery girl, a job which lets her see behind the facades put up by the inhabitants.

It was June. Evenings were as bright as day, not at all menacing, but rather beautiful: Leningrad, deserted for the summer; magical streets of Petrogradky Island. On the building walls and above the entryways, mascarons of cats and mermaids, triangular female faces of resounding beauty: downcast eyes, luscious hair, daydreams. Alleyways bathed in crepuscular light, purple-hued lilac trees in the parks and gardens, and in the distance, beyond the Neva River, the spire of the Admiralty building.

Then there’s title piece, a long work which looks back at Tolstaya’s relationship with her house in America, as well as with the previous inhabitants and future tenants; “Without” meditates on how barren the modern world would be if Italy and its culture had never existed; and “The Invisible Maiden” is a beautiful extended piece where a woman narrator looks back over her life and times at the family dacha, the long hot summers, the people she knew and the changes which came. “The Square” takes a quirky look at Malevich’s famous painting, equating it with death; and “Doors and Demons” explores a visit to Paris where everything seems to go wrong…

These are just some of the riches in the book, because there isn’t a dud amongst them; in fact, it’s hard to pull out favourites because I enjoyed them all. Tolstaya has an individual, lyrical voice and beautifully captures her locations and characters. The pieces set in America were particularly striking, as she viewed that country with an outsider’s eyes. And the gorgeous atmosphere and sense of hot summer weather she pinned down in “The Invisible Maiden” was just stunning.

If you’re young lady with a braid, of an age of yearning and expectation, and it’s a white night June evening of unfading light, and no one is sleeping, and there is no death, and the sky seems full of music, it feels right to go stand on this portico, hugging a stucco-covered column, watching the sea of lilac bushes cascading down the steps, and breathing in the scent of its white misty foam, the scent of your own pure flesh, the scent of your hair. Life will deceive you later, but not just yet.

“Aetherial Worlds” was an absorbing read and I found myself completely sucked into Tolstaya’s world. There’s a sense of nostalgia running through the book, as Tolstaya meditates on her past, on lovers lost and family passed on; and indeed a world which has changed beyond recognition. In “Father” the narrator begins to dream of her missing parent as a young man; and there is the feeling of a writer taking stock of her life and remembering things which only now exist in an (a)etherial way, as phantoms of the past.

Tolstaya is an author new to me (though I *had* heard of her best known work “The Slynx”, which I believe is very different to this book). I don’t think I’m ready to tackle her dystopian novel quite yet, but her short works are obviously incredible and I believe there are plenty more available. I’m glad I discovered this book in time for #WITMonth as Tolstaya is a compelling writer whose prose and visions linger in the mind; I shall have to track down more of her short stories for next August!*


* Ahem. If ever evidence was needed as to how my book collection is out of control….

After scheduling this post, I took the Tolstaya off to file it on the Russian shelves and discovered that I already own a collection of her short stories… I had *completely* forgotten this, and I’m 99.9% sure I haven’t read it. So that just shows how rubbish I am at keeping track of what I own; but, hey! I have another Tolstaya to read, so result! 😀

Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth


August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

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